National Interest: Main hoon aam patrakar

Kejriwal says he doesn’t read us. But our photographers caught him, on dharna, poring over what else but ‘The Indian Express’. (IE Photo: Praveen Khanna) Kejriwal says he doesn’t read us. But our photographers caught him, on dharna, poring over what else but ‘The Indian Express’. (IE Photo: Praveen Khanna)

Having plagiarised the Aam Aadmi Party’s trademark, why don’t I borrow their cap as well. Except, I am not sure what I will write on its other side. To say, like the AAP, mujhe chahiye poorna swaraj, would be an overkill. Because while anybody would love to be a martyr, the fact is I cannot ask for any more journalistic freedom than I already have now in India. We have had our  weakest Central government ever. It follows that others have moved into the power space vacated by it. The judiciary, NGO (or once-upon-a-time NGO) activists and, indeed, we the media, or aam patrakars. We have never been more influential or, cut the euphemism, powerful in India’s history as now. We have also never been abused like this: corrupt, sold to corporates, to Congress, BJP, AAP, Modi, Kejriwal, 10 Janpath. Nothing newsy about that either. Shoot-the-messenger is as old a principle  as politics. It is also nothing that we should complain about. It is a little medal of honour. Of course, abuse is not nice, but it is much less worse than breathless praise from those in power, or hankering after it.

That’s why many of us have been left confused and disappointed by the volley of abuse from the AAP, with which most of us (not this paper, I confess honestly, and with satisfaction) have had a lovefest going for over three years, beginning with the Anna movement. As we wince now at being called thieves and thugs and promised a ticket to jail by the very leaders who hailed us as comrades-in-arms, who would never fail to thank the media for “its support” every time they broke a fast, called off a dharna claiming success, and when they nearly won the Delhi election on their debut, we have a valid reason to ask what has gone wrong. Those who extolled us 24×7 are now holding us responsible for all their problems. They have also given us something unprecedented: a press conference on live TV to call us aam patrakars everything but ISI agents. If you are a reader of Tintin comics like me, it is the equivalent of a high “spirited” Captain Haddock throwing all his favourite abuses at you except “vegetarian”.

BUT let’s not trivialise. There is nothing so Tintin-ishly funny when the head of the party with the largest-ever collection of Indian liberals (Prashant Bhushan, Yogendra Yadav, Kamal Mitra Chenoy, even Gul Panag) asks voters to give it  power so it could lock us up in jails. And when we take comfort as Manish Tewari and Ravi Shankar Prasad come out in our defence. When the BJP promises to protect our freedoms and calls the AAP fascist, you can either feel sorry for yourselves at your own fall from grace, or draw perverse joy from this switching of roles. How boring would our life be as journalists without its ironies. And so what if, for once, we find ourselves in the middle of it. Tomorrow, when the BJP is in power and is on our case,  its chest swollen to 56 inches with pride, we shall still feel free to run to Prashant Bhushan for help. And I can promise you, he will still do so, for free.

Then what are we complaining about? That at a dinner in Nagpur (some dateline that is for the AAP to earn the fascist tag from the BJP), Kejriwal blamed all his ongoing problems on the media. He  said we were in the pay of corporates and Modi, that we were peddling paid falsehoods and that if he comes to power he will send us to jail. There are two points there. First, you can chill as he will have thousands more “corrupt” politicians from all parties, civil servants, municipal employees, policemen — surely all of Delhi Police — to send to jail first. So we may have to wait our turn, and until new jails are built, to deal with this sudden over-supply of convicts. But second, and more significantly, this is not the first time somebody has abused or threatened us like this.

Indira Gandhi censored us, even sent many of us to jail during the Emergency. She unleashed a thug called Vidya Charan Shukla, who even superseded this brave newspaper’s board of directors because it continued to fight the Emergency. As a journalism student on the Independence Day of 1975, I was present in the crowd when Bansi Lal (then defence minister) told people newspapers were “raddi”, no more than a rupee a kilo after 8 am, to be used for serving pakoras. “But don’t even eat pakoras served in old newspapers,” he said, “they are so full of poison, you will die.”

The fact is, journalists have been and will be threatened and abused by those in power, or those seeking it. Should we go neurotic in fear? Or retaliate in anger? The  answer should be, none of the above. A thick skin is essential equipment in the armoury of a journalist. It helps, however, if it comes with a clean conscience as well. Do we see a problem there?

WE IN the media indeed have a bad conscience now. We need to blame ourselves rather than our latest fans-turned-foes. And introspect. For over three years now, we have accepted and promoted every single idea, slogan, half-truth, exaggeration and even lie of the Anna/AAP movement without any questioning. They made great theatre that automatically produced TRPs or just eyeballs, if you want to be fair. We never “covered” them as journalists should have done. We simply applauded as unquestioning, naive fools, so grateful that we were given the ringside in the great drama. The broadcasters’ associations are now united and furious in protest. But nobody raised the flag when prominent star anchors for so many of our channels appeared on Anna/AAP platforms and indulged in conduct not befitting questioning, irreverential journalists. One of them sat on a day’s fast on stage and made a speech supporting the movement, another held aloft Kejriwal’s arm and announced “we are with you” and glowed in the applause that followed. One exhorted “people” to reach Ramlila Maidan in “large numbers” as support for Anna “had gone viral”. Nobody ever raised a simple, curious journalist’s question on any of our new heroes’ claims. They now tell us we are all in the pay of Mukesh Ambani. But should that stupid allegation make us so scared we won’t even ask them to explain their math on gas prices? On whether India is importing gas at $ 16 or not? Whether or not state-owned ONGC will be by far the largest gainer from any increase and indeed the exchequer, because a bulk of the revenue under production-sharing contracts comes to the government? Or while we journalists are easily bought, are the entire set of experts, the Rangarajan Committee, also sold to the Ambanis? The only thing worse than being corrupt for a journalist is to be dumb and cowardly. But can you be anything else when you had so smugly celebrated being fellow travellers? You condemn defections, the politics of Aaya Ram-Gaya Ram. From our point of view, the most significant wholesale defection has been from allegedly independent free media to the AAP. It is a free country and it is not my case that politics is not for decent people. But it makes you wonder how much of what the same characters told you about the Anna/AAP story was truthful and how much “paid” news in political IOUs, if not cash. How many more are still functioning as the AAP’s, or even the Congress or BJP’s, embedded media? Are they furthering our journalistic freedoms? People will ultimately hate us for using journalism and their trust as a short route to power.

This great newspaper, an 82-year-old institution, has taken in its stride the consequences of not joining the herd, of continuing to question the Anna/AAP movement.  We called them illiberal, impatient and anarchist. Of course, we were abused. In the heady days of “August Kranti” (as hailed by a banner newspaper headline), Kejriwal displayed a copy of The Indian Express carrying a story quoting Justice Santosh Hegde as distancing himself from the movement, and called it a lie. Soon enough, Hegde had confirmed that quote even to PTI. We never stopped covering the movement fairly or bothered to lodge a protest at any place. We took it on the chin. And to give credit where it is due, it is Kejriwal who called me one evening to ask while we were critical of them, would I still meet him. I said indeed, yes, and he was invited for an Idea Exchange at our newsroom, and given a full page in our Sunday edition.

He also won our hearts, admitting he was wrong to attack us on the Hegde story as I underlined to him the dangers in inciting a mob no more than 500 yards from our newsroom. When this newspaper broke the story two years ago on how the government had been taken by surprise and spooked by some army movements at the peak of its tiff with the then army chief, Kejriwal had tweeted asking for this paper’s finances to be audited. Howsoever strong the vindication, you do not expect apologies in the public discourse of 2014. But let’s wait and see what he will say now if the same former chief appears in the election on a BJP ticket. He also asked me something that spoke well for his honesty and our stupidity. “Have you checked with your marketing department,” he asked, “how the line your paper has taken on our movement is playing out in the marketplace?” I said something like, we weren’t making Bollywood movies or running an entertainment business, that nobody has any business to tell us — aam patrakars — to twist the news to suit audience tastes and preferences. But too many of us forgot that essential principle.  That we are nobodies in the game of power. We are just a very small and privileged group of Indians who get paid for having fun, using our freedoms, curiosity and argumentative skills. And we are now running with our tails between our legs.

Postscript: Kejriwal said to our reporters a few times that The Indian Express was not a paper he bothered to read. He said this to one of our photographers too. But these are Indian Express photographers. So sure enough, they caught Kejriwal, while he sat on dharna, intently poring over what else but The Indian Express front page carrying a P. Chidambaram interview (by our editor, Mumbai, P. Vaidyanathan Iyer), where he regretted his party’s support to the AAP government. We used that on page one the next day. Could we have asked for a better compliment from Mr Kejriwal? His abuses, we can list on our CVs. With pride and joy.

sg@expressindia.com